Epiphany 1C Sermon Notes (2019)

SERMON NOTES — January 13, 2019

In the Harry Potter saga, there is a scene in which Harry has just seen his godfather, Sirius Black, die. And he goes chasing after the person who killed him, only to find himself faced down by the evil Lord Voldemort himself. Fortunately, just as suddenly as Voldemort appears, so does the only wizard more powerful than Voldemort, Harry’s teacher Albus Dumbledore. What follows is a spectacular wizard’s duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort, in which the latter is obviously trying to kill Dumbledore while also mocking him for not doing the same. Dumbledore is not trying to kill Voldemort, only capture him and stop him. In the end, after briefly possessing Harry’s body to stop Dumbledore’s onslaught, Voldemort gets away.

Dumbledore takes Harry back to his office where they debrief what has happened. The following conversation takes place, with Dumbledore explaining:

“[Voldemort] did not know that you would have [in the words of the prophecy] ‘power the Dark Lord knows not’ —”

“But I don’t!” said Harry in a strangled voice. “I haven’t any powers he hasn’t got, I couldn’t fight the way he did tonight, I can’t possess people or — or kill them —”

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries,” interrupted Dumbledore, “that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 843-44)

Last week, we came to an important truth: because our “original sin” has just as much infected the collective dimension of who we are as humans — our cultures, institutions, laws, religions — then God’s salvation in Jesus is much more than simply forgiving the sins of individuals. In short, sin has turned our politics into violent tribalism. All our politics — our various forms of living in community with one another — have been structured in an Us-against-Them. So this is a very uncomfortable truth of the New Reformation: it deeply involves our politics. We are called to live God’s justice of healing more than the standard human justice of punishment. We are called to challenge the politics of tribalism.

But this week the pendulum swings back from the collective dimension of being human to the individual. Our ability to faithfully challenge the politics of tribalism will always be centered in our hearts — as it was for Harry whose mother had left her mark of love on him — where God is saving each one of us by pouring out the divine love into hearts through the grace of Jesus. Christian practice is nothing if it doesn’t begin and end with faith in the power of love. Like Dumbledore’s mentoring of Harry, the most important thing is to trust in Love.

In fact, a central Christian teaching is that the fulfillment of our politics based on law are only fulfilled in love. In the first three Gospels, there are passages about the greatest commandment: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48), or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (which we will encounter in just a couple weeks; Luke 6:35-36), love of neighbor is shockingly extended to even love of enemies. In John’s Gospel, Jesus boils all the commandments down to one: love one another as Jesus loves us — keeping in mind that he gave up his life for our sin of not loving. St. Paul does not record much of Jesus’ teaching; he spends more time teaching about Jesus. But the heart of what Paul does pass on about Jesus’ teaching is about love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

So how does Jesus’ ministry begin? With baptism? Yes. But it is also a baptism that is not just about washing away individual sins and misdeeds. It is a baptism that centers Jesus — and us — in love: ‘You are my daughter . . . you are my son . . . in whom I am well pleased. The strength to challenge and stand against the powers of sin and death is nothing less than love. The world, even when it loves, loves conditionally: ‘Are you one of Us, so that I may love you?’ God in Jesus loves us unconditionally as a son or daughter. And because God has lovingly created each and every person who ever lived, God loves them unconditionally as sons and daughters — making every person a brother or sister . . . family.

If you were to ask me, ‘where can I read about and learn more about this New Reformation?’ and I were to offer one book that sums it best, it would probably be Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration. One of the main themes is that the church, in the last three hundred years especially, has focused on what one needs to believe in order to be in the In-group that goes to heaven. If we reconceive God’s salvation as saving us from that whole In-group/Out-group (“believer”/“unbeliever”) way of thinking, then what becomes our focus in the church? Love. How to practice love. He writes, for example (in chapter 3, “Learning How to Love”):

A friend of mine makes this point in a rather mathematical way. We hear Jesus say “Follow me” eighty-seven times in the four Gospels. How many times does he say, Worship me? Zero. Name a religion after me? Zero. Recite a creed about me? Zero. Erect buildings in my honor? Zero. That’s not to say these things are wrong, but succeeding at them without actually forming followers of Christ is like climbing a ladder that’s leaning against the wrong building.

Similarly, the word disciple appears in the New Testament more than 250 times, while Christian appears three times, and Christianity, zero.

Imagine what would happen if for the next five hundred years, our churches put as much energy into the formation of generous, Christlike disciples as we have put into getting people to believe certain things or show up at certain buildings or observe certain taboos or support certain political or economic ideologies or keep certain buildings open and people gainfully employed. Imagine how differently love-motivated teachers and engineers would teach and design; how differently love-directed lawyers and doctors would seek justice and promote well-being; how differently love-driven businesspeople would hire, fire, budget, and negotiate; how differently love-guided voters would vote; and how differently love-guided scholars would relate to their students and their subjects. Imagine! (p. 65)

‘You are my daughter, my son, in whom I’m well pleased.’ Imagine if we could live into lives centered in that unconditional love!

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI

Addendum — More from Brian McLaren

Chapter 3 in the The Great Spiritual Migration is ideal for the theme of this sermon on refocusing our church mission to practicing love. Here is an especially helpful section:

Excerpt from Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration, pp. 51-53

I know a lot of people who have tried and tried to find a church home centered in a loving way of life rather than a system of beliefs, but they can’t. Just today, I received an e-mail from a woman who recently lost her son to cancer. “My husband has almost lost faith, and many beliefs I’ve held for life have changed too,” she wrote. As a result, she and her husband no longer feel they can survive in their church. “How does one narrow the search for a new place of worship?” she asked. “The emotional energy to physically visit church after church in search of the right fit is just too much for us right now.”

Many people share this frustration. When they check out church websites, all they see are detailed “statements of faith,” which are actually just statements of beliefs. Or they read ‘All are welcome,” but when they visit, they find that only those who hold the same beliefs really fit. They wish they could find a church that focused on the way of love and then practiced in reality what they posted online — like my friends at Eastlake Community Church in Bothell, Washington. Here’s how they described themselves on their website:

It’s probably important to start by making it clear that we’re not the ones who “finally got the Bible right.” Neither do we possess the secret to life, exclusive access to GOD or “Seven Steps to Satisfaction.” We are, however, powerfully drawn to the person of Jesus, his teaching and even more so, his life. So we are experimenting, and failing, and building a community that collectively follows his Way; hoping, trusting and even doubting that it might seed something beautiful in the world. Namely; full and abundant life for all creation. We think the TRUTH about LIFE may just be LOVE and LOVE may just be the WAY.

If people find that kind of honesty and humility attractive, they can search a little deeper and they’ll find a page called “What We (aspire to) Believe,” which begins like this:

We think the world is tired of religious people who claim to believe a list of ideas when those very ideas don’t translate into any kind of personal transformation. Plus, we see belief as a dynamic lived out in reality, which doesn’t translate well into a few paragraphs on a website.

They then offer this articulation of what it means, for them, to be Christian:

The way of Jesus is a lifestyle of holistic healing for individuals, families, neighborhoods and nations. To follow this way is the countercultural road of limitless forgiveness, radical acceptance, nonviolent peacemaking, abundant generosity and sacrificial love. Salvation isn’t a contractual relationship of filling in the right theological answers or behaving the correct way, but an ongoing covenantal relationship with our Creator. This understanding can move us away from religious systems as our pathway to God as we understand that union with God simply “is” because of Jesus. In this way, salvation is about your NOW life, not your afterlife. We mustn’t confuse the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. God’s Kingdom is power under, not power over; invitation, not coercion; service, not consumption. As a community of Jesus followers, we welcome all persons, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, physical or mental capacity, education, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic or marital status. God doesn’t cause suffering, but redeems it. And calls us to join in the work of renewing and reconciling and redeeming all things. The future is open and full of possibilities. We must embrace the awesome role we are invited to play in it.

Something deep and powerful is going on in those words. This church doesn’t just have another set of beliefs; it is holding its beliefs differently. It has decentered beliefs and focused instead on “the way of Jesus,” namely, the way of love.

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